How Justin Bieber Booted Bing Crosby Off Retail Stores’ Christmas Music Playlists

Survey shows surprising trends in holiday tunes

Right now, if you were to walk into a retail store anywhere in the world, there's a 1 in 10 chance you'd hear a Christmas song thumping through the PA. The deeper we get into the holiday season, the more those odds increase. By Christmas Eve, it's 1 in 4. What's more, there's a higher probability the artist performing that holiday tune is Michael Bublé or Justin Bieber than Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby.

These are among the findings of a just-released survey by Soundtrack Your Brand, a Spotify spinoff firm that provides music to thousands of stores, restaurants and other retail outlets across the world. (See charts below.)

It's no secret that music-streaming services (starting with Pandora in 2005) have revolutionized music delivery, but in the decade or so since streaming took hold, the technology has brought significant changes to the way stores play holiday music. It not only gives retailers a chance to finally toss that off-the-shelf CD in favor of a broader selection of tunes, it also prompts them to think about how the mix and concentration of music can help their brand image.

"The [business-to-business] market is growing and starting to acknowledge the role that background music can actually have in building their brand, steering how consumers behave and increasing sales," said Magnus Ryden, head of content for Soundtrack Your Brand of Stockholm. "A lot of that is finding music aligned with your brand and your customers. If you're not playing the same songs as everyone else, you can position yourself well."

Thanks to streaming, there is a greater range of holiday tunes available, and many of them are old favorites remade by contemporary artists. Irving Berlin's 1942 song "White Christmas," for instance, has been covered no fewer than 111 times. And as the buying power of millennials continues to grow—it's currently about $200 billion annually—younger artists have supplanted the old guard.

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The idea, of course, is that younger shoppers respond better to music that's familiar to them—and millennial shoppers are far too young to remember the days when Sinatra and Peggy Lee ruled the Christmas roost. These days, Bublé is the most streamed Christmas artist in the world, followed by Bieber, whose 2011 album, Under the Mistletoe, has become a new kind of holiday standard.

Another reason stores are playing a greater variety of holiday music with younger artists performing it is employers' growing awareness that endless loops of the same old holiday songs don't just fail to inspire shoppers, they can truly drive store employees nuts. According to communications vp Sven Grundberg, Soundtrack Your Brand sometimes hears complaints from retailers by the second week of December that their workers are sick and tired of the holiday music loop. The company advises them to "mix things—and not just playing Wham!" (He's referring, of course, to "Last Christmas," the synth-driven pop tune that, since its 1984 release, has become something of a Yuletide monster, having sold over 1.78 million copies.)

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Christmas songs, Ryden added, are "as much about getting your customers into the Christmas spirit as not getting your employees out of the spirit." He counsels clients that one holiday tune out of every five played is quite enough, though it's safe to increase the ratio to 1 in 3 right before Christmas.

While retailers have taken a more strategic approach to the holiday music they play, regulating the mix and frequency to achieve greatest effect, there is one long-standing trend that shows no signs of abating: playing Christmas music earlier and earlier with each passing year.

According to Soundtrack Your Brand, while roughly 20 percent of retailers are playing holiday tunes by the end of November—about a month prior Christmas—2 percent cue up the mistletoe music as early as Nov. 20, which this year was nearly a week before Thanksgiving. This phenomenon is often referred to as "Christmas Creep," and it also applies to stores breaking out the holly and ivy at the first signs of fall. Earlier this month, NBC affiliate WGRZ in Buffalo, N.Y., conducted an online survey that revealed that over 70 percent of shoppers would rather get Thanksgiving behind them before hearing any crooning about Christmas.

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